With more and more live football available to stream nowadays, David Anderson, Mats the Swedish Bee and Beesotted discuss whether this is a good thing for the game. And whether there is a way where all sides (broadcasters, clubs and fans) can win from more matches being broadcast.
The UK Red Button Effect – David Anderson
Since the start of the 2018/19 season, fans of Championship clubs have been given the option to watch every midweek league fixture from the luxury of their own home.
Prior to this, unless it was a live match pick, attending a game would be the only way to catch the midweek drama as it unfolded.
Champions League night blackouts set the Championship tone.
As soon as they possibly could, Sky Sports News would then go about thrashing out goals at a sustainable rate from around 9.45pm onwards and continuously throughout the entirety of the night.
It’s how it’s always been until the start of this season and has been a blanket type service for a UK public that had known no different.
The situation we now find ourselves in has shown the true might and power of television, and more specifically – The Broadcasters.
Underpinning the ‘should matches be shown or not’ issue is a battle between BT and Sky for our valuable eyeballs.
BT changed the game in winning the rights to broadcast the Champions League and have inadvertently been the ones to force Sky to rethink how they to fill their schedules. Leeds could be deemed worthy of having their own channel on the Sky EPG, SkySportsLeeds if you will. But as a whole, the EFL and its clubs have truly benefited by Sky’s increased interest and coverage.
BT can show their Champions League midweek and in return, Sky will are able to show every single EFL match they possibly can, at exactly the same time. If they dent BTs’ viewing numbers by a single eyeball (it’s a lot more than that), it’s viewed as an Isleworth win.
So where does it all end? And where does the dust settle in this ferocious battle for our attention?
It has recently been announced that midweek match day attendances are in decline, as reported in the Times, by Martin Ziegler (click here)
Summarising the article, the trend after three midweek rounds is a drop off in fans attending midweek games.
The picture used is a shot from the Aston Villa v Brentford midweek match, on a Wednesday evening, earlier this season. The caption makes a sad note to the empty seats.
The fall in attendances won’t come as a huge surprise to most and it doesn’t take a genius to come up with a few reasons for the cause.
As with most things, there has to be a payoff. With The EFL supposedly monitoring the attendance situation, it’s unclear what positives they expect the future to hold.
If the idea of watching a football match at home is made more desirable by broadcasters, how are even the most loyal fans supposed to act?
If more fixtures are made available for TV viewing, (unless a club is in the position where demand exceeds supply of tickets) there’s obviously going to be a decrease in people going to games. The impact of this is even more powerful when solely looking at away support.
The UK has some of the worst transport links in the world, with extortionate prices to boot.
Couple late nights and slow expensive journeys with having to potentially book periods off work to make kick off times, travelling and supporting your team away from home will always be difficult, let alone extremely expensive.
With all the extra money floating around from broadcasters, you’d expect some of the pressure on the pockets of fans to be relieved.
With the extra revenue teams are now receiving from the new Sky deal, clubs are effectively being subsidised for all of the midweek fixtures. Clubs pocket their payday and the fallout is fans seemingly given the choice to stay away from grounds. Away support plays a huge part of in ground atmosphere and seeing any decline in numbers should be a huge concern to all.
Before Sky take all of the blame, there are arguments for factors and variables to be taken into account when looking at the cause of the drop in ticket sales.
These range from unfortunate fixture scheduling, unfashionable matchups, the simply lazy assessment of a general malaise towards going to games and the battle with Champions League nights and the best players in the world on show.
But notions like “If fans want to go to games they will .If they want to generate an atmosphere, they’ll find a way”, are tossed around far too often.
When a monthly Sky subscription can cost around the £70 mark, football fans are left with a testing dilemma. Choosing to go to a single midweek game can well exceed this figure when factoring in food, transport, beverages of choice. And all on top of a £30 ticket. It’s clear why this is starting to leave a sour taste.
It feels wrong and there is a thought that more should be done to benefit all parties. We should have a proactive Football League body with individual clubs working together in an advantageous manner, incentivising even more fans to attend, increasing the experience level and providing further value in going to games.
There needs to be a much more holistic approach to nurturing the matchday experience. Someone needs to bring clubs, fans and TV together to protect atmospheres, help grow the package and support the idea that grounds should be as full as possible. Currently the thinking is too driven by money.
Because of the huge outlay supporters have to commit to attend matches, should we at last be acknowledging fans’ true worth and using the power we now have to explore a low-cost ticket model – making them as cheap as possible?
How much longer can we leave the control of ticketing in the hands of clubs?
By now, a number of EFL football fans will have experienced iFollow streaming or the Sky Sports red button and have made up their own mind as to its value.
The value to Sky is huge. The production cost, minimal. With limited cameras to operate, basic commentary, no replays or TV wrap around, just simply the broadcasting of a rudimentary feed, all at a low cost. It’s an open goal scored in the end of advertisers with bigger budgets – no doubt sold the increased viewer story.
The opening up of fixtures certainly does serve a purpose. Many fans or viewers who would not attend a game can now get the opportunity to watch their team. But should this be done putting the game-going fan first, not last?
Are we content with broadcasters and clubs colluding to make each other more and more money from a product that everyone is a part of?
Fans are a big part of the spectacle. Rows of empty seats are not.
Currently, it doesn’t feel like we’re heading down the right route and when we revisit fan attendance after the next few rounds of midweek fixtures, it’s more than likely that the downward trend will have continued.
This certainly isn’t something we want and it goes completely against helping to increase popularity in the Football League, safeguarding atmosphere within grounds and ingraining going to matches into future generations.
Multiple simulcast games viewed on UK television and other devices is the direction football has been heading in for a while, and a course we can’t turn back from.
But with a foray into the future as particularly sensitive as this, the implementation must be done correctly and built upon all of the right foundations, not dwindling attendances.
The Red Button Effect in Sweden – Mats the Swedish Bee
Up until the mid 80s, very few games in the Swedish top league (Allsvenskan) were aired on TV. In the late 80s and 90s, a few games were aired per week if you were prepared to pay for a pretty expensive, annual subscription. Even when you decided to splash out for that subscription, you would only be able to see a handful of games of the team you support.
During that period, the 80s and 90s, attendance numbers at the grounds were very low – both home and away. Only dedicated fans were discussing games at the office the day after. There was no common knowledge about which teams were at the top of the league or what went on in stadia up and down the country at the weekend.
In 1993, public free television started airing a weekly. The product – a 30 minute highlights show, similar to the current “EFL on Quest” programme. After that, interest in the top Swedish league slowly picked up.
In 2001, the satellite and digital-tv networks started airing every single game in the Allsvenskan via pay-per-view. A PPV game would cost roughly the same as one ticket to the ground. A couple of years later, you could by a £30 monthly subscription to watch all games. In recent years, the red button is rarely used. Most people use streaming to watch the games in their web browser, phones, Apple TV and any device possible. The subscription model is the same though.
Today, the monthly subscription is around £38, and can be cancelled anytime. If you sign up for a year, the price is £30. As a comparison to matchday prices, at the grounds, a standing ticket in the Swedish top division is around £13 whereas seat tickets are £15-30.
There was much trepidation that the extensive TV coverage would hurt the attendance at the grounds, but that didn’t happen. On the contrary, the interest for Allsvenskan boomed, with loads of media coverage and more people coming to the grounds. Slumbering fans started taking more interest in following their team – mostly following on TV, but some occasionally also starting to attend a few games per season. Away attendance was hurt initially – particularly on weekdays. But to be fair, away games have always been for the most dedicated fans with away attendance numbers similar to Championship numbers.
But overall, the general increase in interest compensated the falls here and there and now the away crowds are larger than ever.
The club I support – Hammarby – moved from a 11000 capacity ground to 30000 capacity ground five years ago. We were really worried about attendance. The first season was actually not a success, although first game was sold out thanks to the hype. It all settled down around 15000 – still more than 11,000 – but we were rattling around in a big stadium.
Then next season, something interesting happened. There was a buildup of more and more people coming to the ground and when there was a very important game coming up (this was still the Swedish 2nd Division), the club realised that it may be possible to fill the ground again. So they started a massive social media campaign – triggering the fan community to run the campaign. The ground sold out and since then, it has been sold out repeatedly with an average attendance of around 22,000.
Most of the reason for is the increase in families who now find it easier and more convenient to go to the games. And the price is very reasonable – £14 standing for adults. So in the Hammarby case, I think the ground and the price made a big difference once fans had been ‘sold’ the idea of actually going to watch live football.
Constant TV coverage and a lot of hype around “which club has the biggest attendance” coupled with a new stadium, cheap ticket prices and a guaranteed fantastic atmosphere inside the ground was enough to drive more and more fans into the stadium each week.
However, TV coverage is far from the only reason why the average attendance in the Swedish top league has almost doubled over the last 20 years.
The main reason for the increase is that the fan culture has evolved.
People come to matches to be part of, and contribute to, the passionate atmosphere. It’s a snowball effect, sort of. The key is getting fans into the stadium who want to be there. And who want to create an atmosphere. And want to take part in the (as they say) matchday experience. That might be a story for another article.
Regarding full TV coverage in Sweden – even if it by itself hasn’t doubled the attendance, it seems like it hasn’t hurt attendances either in my opinion. In general, people now come to the grounds because they want to be there, not because they have to (to be able the see the game at all).
And with the ticket price being reasonable and the atmosphere once inside being great, the decision for fans to go to the game is made even easier.
Mats – Swedish Bee
TV broadcasters have ruled the roost for many a good while now. And the amount of games on TV are increasing year on year.
This year we believe the Football League has over 150 games to deliver to to fulfil its commitment to Sky TV. That’s a lot of games. There is an argument to say, this will only increase in years to come as the demand for content increases.
But when will the threshold come?
This week Beesotted have decided to do their weekly PrideOfWest.London podcast from a pub in Brentford watching the Preston game on the Sky Sports red button. We didn’t take this decision lightly. Between myself and Dave, we have missed maybe 2 or 3 games home and away since the days of Uwe Rosler (2013). Preston is one of our favourite awaydays.
But the fact that none of the usual ‘crew’ were able to take time off to make this match. The fact that the cost of getting up there in the middle of the week was prohibitive. The fact that an overnight stay was required (not a problem – but an additional cost). Not to mention the domestic juggles at half term and having to take two days off (if you cut it tight maybe two half days) – it all made the trip a little tricky.
Saying all of that, we actually were still planning to go. Until someone mentioned “You do know it’s on the red button don’t you?”.
All of a sudden, the £300 plus we would have spent between us was put into perspective.
The fact is – if the game wasn’t on TV. We probably would have gone.
The fact it is. We haven’t.
But we realise we may be in the minority. There will be many many people who – even if they wanted to – would NOT have been able to take time off work and go to Preston on a Wednesday night. So for them, the red button is a blessing.
The problem you have here though is the possibility of football fans getting out of the habit of going games. Not only away games. But home games too. Because it’s ‘too easy not to’. There was a view from some Bees fans that I spoke to that they thought the Birmingham game may have been muted because of the red button.
Mats has showed in Sweden this is not necessarily the case. But he has explained why that is.
So if this is something that isn’t going to go away, how can this new era of ‘content content content’ work for all sides??
David mentioned in his article about all sides coming together to try and solve this problem and he is so right.
Games are content. And Sky – as a broadcast company – has a remit to hoover up as much content as possible on terms which will make them as much money as possible. Naturally they will try and get as many games at as cheap a price as possible. That’s business.
The terms on how this content is licensed is determined by the Football League. The Football League can say NO. The Football League can ask for certain clauses to be added in return for a license of the clubs’ content. The Football League can in effect control what they get in return for the money that the broadcasters hand over.
As both articles have pointed out, it’s not only about the money. It’s about actually having a product (to coin a much derided phrase) which is also attractive. Having a match on TV with a half empty soul-less stadium is not only unattractive for the fans in the stadium. It is also unattractive for the broadcasters too.
I don’t for one minute believe that an increase in money in football increases the quality of the game. It’s the same players. It’s the same stadia. The additional money always inevitably goes to paying the SAME players more money.
How does that improve the game?
What about this for a novel idea? Assuming the Football League gets an INCREASE in money to stream games on ifollow and also on the red button. Just taking the red button, this would amount to an additional 9 games a season roughly.
The Football League accepts any deal from the broadcaster on the pre-requisite that the clubs use the increase in money to charge away fans a maximum of lets say £5 per match. The story here – football (as a whole) is looking long-term, using the increase in money received from TV companies to improve the matchday experience for fans attending the game as well as improve the atmosphere for the watching TV audience.
A novel idea would be also to instruct the clubs to make the home prices of these TV matches more attractive for home fans as well – charging say a maximum of £15.
As every club has to do it, overall it is not as if one club is being penalised over the other. Money is in the pot and whilst money is available, the clubs should be more pro-active in improving their businesses and not waiting until the last minute when the chips are down to try and make improvements.
They could relay that it was at the request of the broadcasters who were looking for an improvement in the atmosphere in return for giving the clubs more money.
So in reality, the additional money is used for marketing purposes in effect to try and maintain (and build) an audience in an era where televised games are becoming more prevalent.
It was interesting speaking to Mats in Sweden who remarked that over a period of time, he believed that mass streaming of games at 3pm on a Sunday has NOT affected crowds overall. But what seems to have happened in Sweden over that period of time is, the live experience has actually improved with fans wanting to go and participate – actually supporting their team on a matchday.
The ticket price seems to be a major factor in getting people through the doors – £13 to £15 in a country where a pint of beer is traditionally one of the most expensive in Europe.
Maybe the Football Authorities (the ones who do the deals with the broadcasters) need to start thinking a bit more long term as to how they (and the clubs) are going to incentivise people to go to matches – filling stadia not only for the big matches but also for the bog standard ones too (like midweek on TV).
Because being able to view football at every possible opportunity on every possible device known to man may seem great in principal. But if it is being shown in half empty stadia with muted atmospheres, is someone not forgetting what the game is all about?
You can catch the Beesotted PrideOfWest.London podcast by clicking here – the PNE red button podcast will be live Thur 7am. You can also catch David Anderson’s blog by clicking here.
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